Looking to hammer out all of the environmental logistics prior to holding a 2011 oil and gas lease sale in what is expected to be the gas-rich North Aleutian Basin, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has contracted with Rutgers University, with the assistance of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, to modify an ice-ocean circulation model for Alaska's Bristol Bay.

"Understanding the circulation within Bristol Bay will be important for us as we evaluate a possible oil and gas lease sale in the offshore waters of the North Aleutian Basin," said MMS Regional Director John Goll.

Under the MMS five-year program for 2007-2012, an oil and gas lease sale in the North Aleutian Basin is proposed for 2011. MMS said it scheduled the sale late in the program to allow sufficient time to supplement existing environmental data for environmental analyses. Under this schedule, exploratory drilling and related operations would not begin until 2012 or later.

This past summer, Interior Secretary Kirk Kempthorne approved the MMS five-year program that calls for lease sales to be held in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Alaska's Bristol Bay area and offshore Virginia (see NGI, July 9). The offshore leasing program has been the target of criticism by energy industry and consumer groups, who say it is far short of what is needed to meet increasing natural gas demand.

Interior has scheduled eight sales in Alaska -- two in the Beaufort Sea, three in the Chukchi Sea, up to two in Cook Inlet and one in the North Aleutian Basin (Bristol Bay area) -- in an area of about 5.6 million acres that was previously offered during Lease Sale 92 in 1985. There currently are no existing leases in the North Aleutian Basin, the agency said.

President Bush in January lifted the presidential bans on drilling in the Bristol Bay area in the North Aleutian Basin of Alaska and 181 South area of the central Gulf, removing the last remaining obstacles to offering producers leases in the areas under the 2007-2012 leasing program (see NGI, Jan. 15). The North Aleutian Basin Planning Area is gas-prone, with estimated technically recoverable, undiscovered natural gas resources of up to 23.38 Tcf, according to MMS.

The study has four main objectives:

The contract consists of adapting an existing ice-ocean circulation model of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska to the specific oceanographic conditions within Alaska's Bristol Bay. The MMS said Rutgers will use the Regional Ocean Modeling System, which has a significant peer-reviewed record of use in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. The modeling study began in the fall and will continue for two years.

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